Retreats can build trust

In this season of leadership retreats, it’s important to focus on trust and communications.

If clergy and lay leaders are working well together, they can respond effectively to the surprises that come in any season and are especially likely in a recession. “Planning” always sounds appealing, as if leaders had control over the key variables shaping parish life. In fact, they have little control, and most church budgets have little room for maneuvering.

Instead, like other enterprises, churches find themselves responding more than planning. A key giver loses his job, and suddenly the church budget takes a hit. People come and go, usually for reasons that are beyond church leaders’ control. Unforeseen issues of health, community need, and political circumstance force leaders to grapple with new conditions.

I encouraged one congregation to drop “strategic planning” and to focus instead on “strategic responsiveness.”

In the absence of trust and healthy communications, surprises can “undo” a leadership group. They will lapse into blaming, panic, and isolated “problem-solving.” Some will become aggressive and others defensive. Winning and staying safe will matter more than making an effective response.

When trust is high and communications are solid, however, a leadership group can deal with almost anything. They can read the signs, respond, learn from failures, take risks, and inspire confidence among constituents.

Trust isn’t automatic in any leadership group. Members need to know each other at some depth. They need to speak openly, with honesty and with compassion. They need to listen more than speak, and seek to understand far more than to blame. Leaders need to get outside themselves and move beyond comfortable roles. Talkers need to listen, quiet listeners need to talk.

That work can happen at a leadership retreat. The weekend won’t be enough, but it can be a start.

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Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant, and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is president of Morning Walk Media, Inc., publisher of On a Journey, and founder of the Church Wellness project.